This review contains spoilers.
1.6 Haunted Houses
Six episodes down. Two to go. Given True Detective’s curious time signature I referred to last week, I think it’s permissible, even at this late stage, to skip back to the beginning and remind ourselves of one of Rust Cohle’s earliest comments on the murder case that started this bad ball rolling:
‘This kind of thing doesn’t happen in a vacuum’.
As the episodes have racked up, that statement has proven ever more accurate. Now, as we enter the final act, the case has become everything. It is not simply about Dora Lange (whose name was mentioned just once this entire hour), but about rural Louisiana, its culture, its religion and its men, particularly those charged with enforcing the law and maintaining order. Crime fiction, into which pedigree True Detective has been born, is concerned with the breakdown of that order; every violent crime a mini human apocalypse; every detective an agent of restitution. It is the drive to restore order and to seek justice that motors men like Rust Cohle, even when they’re no longer officially on the clock. It becomes personal because the preservation of order sometimes means falling outside of it yourself.
Consequently, this episode was concerned with the things that happen outside the walls, outside order. Its title, Haunted Houses, while of a piece with the gloomy nomenclature of the series, was something of a misnomer. A haunted house is threatening because it traps you inside with malevolence. True Detective examines the threat of being outside.
For the most part, this means outside the strictures of law. There were two scenes in which our anti-heroes explicitly decided to deal with things without recourse to the badge. Marty Hart, handling the fallout of his daughter’s sexualised rebellion preferred to issue his own beatdown to the two male participants that he, tellingly, continued to refer to as ‘boys’. Later, after another bout of vengeance-violence, it was Cohle who declined to press charges. These men may be agents of the law, but that only makes them more aware of its limitations and more keen to circumvent it whether the matter is directly personal or not. Cohle’s continued pursuit of the Lange/Yellow King case is conducted without the sanction of his superior and, it is implied, even after his has surrendered his badge for the final time. His comment to [he young mother who had killed her baby that she should ‘kill herself at the earliest available opportunity’ again speaks to his extra-mural tendency. Cohle has no faith in the institutions of law to either punish or protect her. Both solutions must come by her own hand. It’s a bleak moment in a bleak episode of a bleak series, but it is entirely consistent with the lone-wolf attitude that has infected both detectives.
Where Cohle expresses his solitariness through psychological force, Hart does so through pure violence. His big-ass belt buckle (an inch or so above his self-proclaimed ‘big-ass dick’) gives him the look of the cowboy, colouring his hyper-masculine instinct that drives such men to disdain offering comfort to the abused in favour of seeking vengeance on the abuser. He had it last week at Reggie’s place, and again here, using his insider status as a law officer to deliver his punishment beatings extra-judicially. He finds himself outside every institution he serves but, unlike Cohle, is unable to see it.
If his preparedness to bend the rule of law (and note his careful preparation in both cases, protecting his knuckles with gloves before beating the boys, removing his badge and weapons before tackling Cohle) makes him a cowboy cop, then his continued unrepentant philandering makes him a cowboy husband, outside the walls of his own marriage. Just watch him sit; eating his dinner in front of ‘the game’, a stranger in his own living room and utterly oblivious to his own alien nature, the kind of guy whose well-signposted divorce nevertheless appears to come out of a clear blue sky.
One of the, admittedly few, criticisms of True Detective is that it is too masculine, that it presents female characters in the familiar moulds of victim or harlot or nagging wife. Such criticisms, while accurate, are somewhat misplaced. Yes, it has a male-oriented worldview, as any drama from which the bulk of the narrative comes from male characters’ direct recollections must necessarily have, but that is not tantamount to endorsement, and certainly not here. True Detective, in this first season at least, is an examination of a male worldview and a critique of it. Both male leads are damaged in their own way and, in their own way, leave a trail of destruction in their wake. For Cohle, this means a dogged pursuit of the Yellow King case that brings harm even as it seeks to make things right. If that means upsetting the one known survivor, then so be it. If it means pissing off the powerful Billy Lee Tuttle (perhaps to the point of suicide) then so be it. The case is the case and it does not happen in a vacuum.
For Hart, the trail of destruction runs right through the mini human apocalypse that is his marriage, which we now see through the eyes of Maggie. It’s a cruel irony now we’re finally given that female perspective, it describes the moment at which she most wanted to act like a man. Screwing a randomly-selected stranger just wouldn’t cut it. Perhaps wouldn’t cut deeply enough; wouldn’t hurt enough. It was part experiment, part punishment. Maggie wanted to know what it felt like to be Marty; to cheat with such callous disregard for a spouse that he could come home and talk breezily about ‘date night’ while he showered off the stink. But Maggie is not Marty and, the deed done, she had no other option but to make her mannered, almost formal apology. She needed him to know and needed to look into his eyes as he found out. His response? Violent retribution. He’s a man with unrestricted appetite, whose attempt to control it amount to little more than denial. According to Maggie, he found religion for a while, even sobriety, again just for a while. In his own words, he’s capable of having ‘just this one beer then stopping’. He’s lying and it’s not hard to see echoes of Hart in Billy Lee Tuttle’s remarks apropos Deacon Austin Farrar that it’s ‘hard to trust a man who can’t trust himself with a beer’. Does this mean that Hart is more directly linked to the Yellow King killer? I doubt it, but he is of the crime. As both detectives prepare themselves for their new confrontation, they’d do well to remember that; the crime didn’t happen in a vacuum and there’s no escaping its resonance, no matter how many walls they vault.
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